The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Pigs Sneeze

It’s More Productive Than Worrying About When Pigs Fly.

With the first U.S. death from swine flu now confirmed, many Americans just ratcheted up this disease in their minds as a really scary thing worth worrying about. One reason flu pandemics are so scary has to do with the way viruses act like terrorists. The very genuine threat of bio-terrorism makes this more than mere flamboyant metaphor.

The first way flu is like terrorism is its propensity to strike in unexpected ways. We have spent the past several years dreading and preparing for a pandemic resulting from some exotic strain of bird flu out of Asia. Now we face one transmitted by swine, an old culprit, but originating out of Mexico.

Moreover, despite its genesis, you cannot catch swine flu by eating pork, not even pork from a Mexican restaurant. You catch it by touching a doorknob sneezed on by a Mexican pig, probably with a string of doorknobs and sneezes between you and the original snout with sniffles.

The second way flu is similar to terrorism is that both breed in environments of poverty and limited opportunities. When bringing livestock into the house is the best way to keep warm on cold nights as well as protect the family’s only form of wealth, other uninvited vermin are going to find their way into the house as well.

Viruses, much like many extremist groups, are kind of small and ineffectual on their own. They rely upon converts to do much of their dirty work for them, most of whom are just innocent folks in the wrong place at the right time. Viruses seek out those most susceptible and then infect them with their poison by getting into their heads and making appeals to their blood.

Another way that flu is like terrorism is operating in small, distinct cells. The early spread of any flu, even ones that ultimately reach pandemic stages, is seldom uniform. Instead, the disease pops up in small clusters in specific countries, states, and cities and spreads from there. Although made from the same basic materials, these separate cells may undergo discrete retro-mutations, causing them to look and act very differently from one another despite their common origins and purpose.

Finally, flu is analogous to terrorism in that its attacks come in waves, often months apart. Each wave is usually more lethal than the last, as the enemy reacts to our defenses and finds means to subvert and elude them.

With so many similarities between them, perhaps we can draw lessons between the fight against terrorism and the fight against flu pandemic.

David Brooks of the New York Times begins by correctly observing, “These decentralized threats grow out of the widening spread and quickening pace of globalization and are magnified by it.” The potential dangers of a rural Mexican barnyard transmute to New York City public schools in a mere matter of days or hours.

Brooks goes on to postulate from this that decentralized responses to such problems are best because they are most flexible, they are more reassuring (i.e. people prefer being cared for by their own), and they seem to adapt well to uncertainty.

The last thing we need, according to Brooks, is beefing up already large international governance agencies, such as the as the World Health Organization (WHO), to deal with flu. At the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto cannot help but snidely observe that the reason swine flu began in Mexico is due precisely to the inefficient socialized medicine practiced by that nation.

Over at the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum has a very different take on things. She sings the praises of the World Health Organization, arguing, “The WHO may well be the only international organization that we cannot live without.” She concedes, however, it does suffer from some of the same shortcomings of the UN and other large, complex agencies.

According to Applebaum, the problem with such agencies is not size per say but unchecked growth of bureaucracy and loss of mission focus. Thus, “if we want the WHO to be there when we need it,” it must receive generous funding but also meticulous scrutiny. The importance of “watching the watchdogs” seems immediately transferable to the growing array and interconnection of government agencies dedicated to homeland security, even as it reinforces the notion that national security requires an international response.

Her colleague at the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, notes that with flu as with foreign policy, “we spend a lot of time worrying about the wrong potential disasters.” Robinson notes we tend to obsess over the most dreadful possibilities, even when they are not especially likely. Everyone was frightened of an Asian bird flu pandemic even though scientists repeatedly reassured us there was no evidence of human infectious mutations at this time. Hence, a strain of swine flu from Mexico caught us off guard.

Likewise, Robinson argues, “our foreign policy debate these days centers on unstable Pakistan, which has nukes, and belligerent Iran, which is trying its best to get them. Obviously, that region has to be our most urgent priority. But we also should think about other threats . . . that loom much closer to home.” Threats like the emergence of dangerous drug cartels in places like neighboring Mexico.

Finally, this potential pandemic demonstrates the superiority of general preparedness over attempting to anticipate and combat every possible specific threat. The main reason the U.S. has yet to be overwhelmed by swine flu is all of the preparations made for avian flu.

This is due is large part to planning performed and infrastructure put in place by the Bush Administration, as Tevi Troy, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, points out in the Wall Street Journal. Some credit is also due existing officials for smart use thus far of these resources, especially Dr. Richard Besser, acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control.

A vaccine tailored to the current dangerous strain of influenza will take at least six months to develop. However, research performed by Britain’s Leicester Royal Infirmary and the University of Leicester and just released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that those inoculated against a wide spectrum of influenza strains, sometimes years earlier, show surprising immunity against a similar strain of pandemic proportions.

Likewise, researchers investigating a universal flu vaccine at Saint Louis University recently published findings in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology that suggest the best approach is a wide array of antibodies targeting a part of the flu virus found in many strains, rather than focusing on the variations from strain to strain employed by conventional vaccines.

Applied to terrorism, the best array of weaponry and other defenses may be the simplest and most multi-purpose. When someone bewails the canceling of a controversial missile shield system because it would be the perfectly tailored response to the danger of North Korea’s missile program, they may be missing the bigger picture. This is not to downplay the continued danger from Kim Jong-Il’s regime but it is likely to share the world stage with countless other players as the peril du jour at any moment.

Preparation and preventive measures are only sensible in the face of any threat. On the other hand, regarding every unknown as hostile and every hostile as deadly dangerous is distinctly unhealthy on several levels. And assuming the people, cultures, and religions least like our own must be more pre-disposed to evil contagions is just outright dumb. The flu has taught us that much about terrorism.

We just spend the past several years worrying about a pandemic that would be so awful when it finally came that it would be akin to “when pigs fly.” We should have been worried instead about when pigs sneeze.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Josiah's Example

We Elected a Reformer, Not an Avenger.

Then Josiah the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. Josiah went up into the house of the Lord . . . and he read in their ears all the words of the Book of the Law that was found in the house of the Lord. Josiah stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord to walk after the Law and to keep its commandments and its testimonies and its statutes with all his heart and with all his soul . . . and he caused all that were present in Jerusalem and Judah to [do the same].
~ Chronicles II, 34:30-33.

Last week, President Obama released several previously classified CIA memos issued during the former Bush Administration, justifying and sanctioning the use of “interrogation with enhanced techniques” (i.e. torture).

The memos proved what many had suspected all along – the brutal treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and elsewhere was widespread and systematic. Rather than the acts of “a few bad apples,” as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz once insisted, torture was the product of orders issued from individuals like Wolfowitz and others in the highest circles of command.

Obama has been clear he will not prosecute CIA agents and other low-level personnel who conducted interrogations, as they were simply following orders their superiors had assured them were legal. He initially expressed a similar unwillingness to indict those issuing orders, saying, “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Pressure from anti-war members of Congress and left wing progressive groups have caused Obama to retreat from his original position. He now says he might accept a “Truth Commission” but urged Congressional Democrats to appoint an independent prosecutor or panel rather than holding hearings themselves. He has rather vapidly decreed that “most” decisions regarding legal extradition, trial, and punishment will be left to Attorney General Eric Holder. For his part, Holder has been equally equivocal. “No one is above the law. So we’ll see what happens.”

Many liberal pundits are taking Obama to task for his reservations on this topic, insisting his vacillation is undermining the moral as well as practical objections he raised against the Iraq War and war on terrorism during the 2008 campaign.

The clamor started with Howard Fineman in the current issue of Newsweek. He is joined today by Paul Krugman in the New York Times, who asserts, “The only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how [it all] happened and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.”

Krugman continues, “For the fact is that officials in the Bush Administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract ‘confessions’ that would justify that war.”

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson swells the chorus with his voice. “Torture is not just immoral but also illegal. This means that once we learn the whole truth, the law will oblige us to act on it.”

Only Roger Cohen, writing a few days earlier in the New York Times, is inclined to sway toward mercy over justice.

“I’m wary of the clamor for retribution. Congress failed. The press failed. The judiciary failed. With almost three thousand dead, America’s checks and balances got skewed, from the Capitol to Wall Street. Scrutiny gave way to acquiescence . . . Those checks and balances are recovering now. I don’t think recovery would be served by prosecutions . . . The right balance between retribution and reconciliation is always hard to find in the aftermath of national trauma . . . There’s work to do. Obama’s right – America should look ahead, not back.”

There are probably many reasons why Obama does not wish pursue those who authorized torture, despite the seriousness of the charges. It is certainly clear why he favors an independent commission over Congressional hearings. Even Obama is beyond counting on lessened GOP opposition as a reward for his largesse. However, he cannot afford for his supporters to be distracted from pursuing his aggressive agenda as they chase after their conservative counterparts.

What is more, a thorough investigation is liable to implicate far too many Democrats along with the usual gang of Republican suspects.

For example, among those briefed by the CIA in 2002 about the decision to use waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques were ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

The ranking House Democrat was Representative Nancy Pelosi of California. She remembers receiving assurances such practices were legal but not that U.S. interrogators were actually going to use them. The ranking Senate Democrat, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, denies receiving any kind of briefing.

The ranking House Republican, Representative Porter J. Goss of Florida, remembers things a little differently. “We were briefed, and we certainly understood what CIA was doing,” he said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Obama may also realize that as justifiably outraged as some liberals may be over torture, other Americans not only continue to defend it use but regard the termination of such practices with equally sincere outrage.

“By inviting the prosecution of Bush officials for their anti-terror legal advice, President Obama has injected a poison into our politics that he and the country will live to regret,” fumed the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial on Wednesday. “Until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements.”

Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the current ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, goes so far as to question which side of this argument is truly guilty of the worst crimes. “Perhaps we need an investigation not of the enhanced interrogation program but of what the Obama Administration may be doing to endanger the security our nation has enjoyed because of interrogations and other antiterrorism measures implemented since Sept. 12, 2001.”

Then again, perhaps Obama is following the example of the Biblical king Josiah in this matter. Josiah was king of Judah from 641–604 BC. The once powerful nation of Israel had fallen from the greatness of David and Solomon, splitting into a northern and Josiah’s southern kingdom long ago.

His subject’s worship of idolatry distressed Josiah. He ordered such statues destroyed and their shrines torn down. He also raised money and ordered the great temple at Jerusalem cleaned and restored. During the restoration, a scribe found a long-forgotten writing, which some scholar hold to have been Deuteronomy, one of the Old Testament’s five core books of Mosaic Law.

When Josiah read the book, he became even more distressed and “rent his robes” when he realized how far his people had fallen from the Law. A prophet told Josiah that Jerusalem would pay for its crimes but his honesty and humility had earned him dispensation.

Josiah’s next acts are those chronicled in the quote at the top of this post. He had the lost Book of Law read aloud so everyone could hear it. Then he vowed to adhere to it and urged his subjects to follow his example. He drove out and/or killed the idolatrous priests and some of the worst “abominations” but he conducted no pogroms or purges against Jews who might have strayed.

Josiah was essentially a reformer, not an avenger. Perhaps he felt no small amount of guilt that much of the idolatry had built up in Judah over the preceding reigns of his father and grandfather. Perhaps he simply came to realize the same insight as Aldous Huxley some twenty centuries later.

“The people who make wars, the people who reduce their fellows to slavery, the people who kill and torture and tell lies in the name of their sacred causes, the really evil people in a word – these are never the publicans and the sinners. No, they’re the virtuous, respectable men, who have the finest feelings, the best brains, the noblest ideals.”

The Bush officials most responsible for the reprehensible practice of torture are no less the descendants of the Founding Fathers than ourselves. Like so many things regarding the Iraq War, they lied to us only after first lying to themselves so completely that they came to believe their lies as the truth. By selectively listening to some and eschewing critical thinking altogether, they created a worldview in which torture by the United States was legally and ethically necessary.

Obama, like Josiah, is a reformer. Releasing those CIA memos were a first step, akin to reading the Book of Law aloud in the temple. Further steps may be justified to place the full story before the public but it is a cautionary tale for all. Some high-ranking priests and those guilty of the worst abominations may well need to pay a price but this should not be our paramount concern.

As Roger Cohen observes, “A facile search for scapegoats . . . would allow too many to disregard their own small measure of responsibility.” Even Paul Krugman admits, “During the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.”

Our nation’s deviation from the Law over the past eight years was too big and too appalling to think a few trials and convictions can fix it, no matter how much pleasure we might receive watching the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and even former President Bush twisting in the wind. This crew deserves little mercy but history is already descending and judging them as too small – both as lawbreakers and as leaders – to be worth too much more of our valuable time and energy.

Instead, we should seek to clean up the mess and repair what had fallen down from neglect. Obama has begun this process as well by definitively banning torture in the future via executive order. Obama is no messiah, so let us stop moping over his lack of flaming sword. We elected a reformer, not an avenger – time to follow him and bind wounds rather than slashing new ones.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beyond the Spoils System

The Main Point of Obama’s Reforms Should Be to Protect Progressives When He Is No Longer in Office.

On his first day in office, President Obama signed an executive order banning registered lobbyists from working for any government agency lobbied by them in the past two years. Public advocacy groups like the Project on Government Oversight, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters praised the new policy as “groundbreaking.”

When Obama issued a few high-profile waivers early on in the nomination process, such as for William Lynn, a defense industry lobbyist who eventually became Deputy Defense Secretary, public advocacy groups were equally vocal in demanding no exceptions. They were largely successful, with only three waivers ultimately issued among eight hundred total appointments.

Now these same public advocacy lobbyists are angry with the Obama Administration again over the new policy. This time, however, it is because Obama refuses to make exceptions for them.

The issue first appeared back on March 5, as a story by Ryan Grim reported in the Huffington Post. “The implementation of [the anti-lobbying] rule, however, has led to a number of consequences that Obama could never have intended,” Grim wrote. “Eliminating lobbyists from consideration drains the pool of progressive talent that the White House needs at a time when agencies and departments are severely understaffed.”

Grim goes on to describe “a sense of betrayal” felt by progressives over the matter. They take offense at being lumped together with big money corporate hired guns. “It seems very unsophisticated to me to have gone down this road where you make no distinction between the environmental lobbyist and the Exxon lobbyist,” said one frustrated government job applicant.

Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias trumpeted Grim’s story the next day on his website and augmented it with his own outrage on the subject. “Way back in August 2007 I criticized Obama’s lobbyist pledge as ‘meaningless grandstanding’. That turns out to have been too optimistic.”

The problem was never lobbying per say, according to Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. “It was a problem of money corrupting politics.” Corporate lobbyists undercut democracy by selling influence, insist progressives, whereas public interest lobbyists enrich democracy through legitimate advocacy, often with no money involved.

A compounding problem is that many public advocacy activists in Washington registered as lobbyists, even when the level of their activities did not require it, in a public display of transparency. Now there is a mass scrambling by these same individuals to deregister. Others who cannot deregister are talking about sitting on the sidelines for two years in order to qualify for government jobs.

The net effect is a double whammy, such that the progressives Obama needs to help carry through his initiatives will not be available to craft or advocate for policy changes.

For its part, the Obama Administration argues that lobbying does not require big money to represent a slippery slope for democracy. Corruption is still all too easy when people in policy positions try to make unbiased decision over issues for which they were just recently highly biased advocates. Trying to separate those representing “good” issues is simply impracticable.

“You can’t have a value judgment,” insists White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Senior adviser David Axelrod agrees. “You can’t have carve-outs for lobbyists you like and exclude those that you don’t. It would be very hard for people to understand that distinction.”

Norm Eisen, the President's chief ethics counsel, said in a White House blog posting that it is “important to have reasonable exceptions” to the lobbying rules, but he added that such waivers would be used “sparingly.”

White House officials also point out that despite the lobbying ban’s strictures, Obama appointments have generally proceeded at a faster pace than for the previous three Administrations.

In spite of this, progressives continue to have trouble with the “good guys” (i.e. themselves) being punished along with the “bad guys.” For example, many are incensed that lobbying by Tom Malinowski against genocide in Darfur, repression in Myanmar, and torture by the United States prevents his selection as Obama’s human rights chief.

Indeed, mention of Malinowski is so ubiquitous in articles that it is sometimes unclear whether he is the accidental poster child for a populist movement or whether progressive created a movement specifically to address his particular situation.

In any case, Jacob Weisberg, writing in both Newsweek and Slate, contrasts the rejection of Malinowski with the appointment of corporate hired gun Tony Podesta by the government agency Sallie Mae. Weisberg correctly proclaims, “There is every imaginable ethical difference between Podesta’s work and Malinowski’s.”

Yet Weisberg eventually finds himself forced to admit, “As a matter of law, however, it is probably impossible to distinguish between them. Both are exercising the same First Amendment right to petition the government. Both have a legal obligation to register as lobbyists. The rule that bars the one Obama doesn't want prevents him from hiring the one he does want.”

Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a long-time proponent of government reform, thinks this is all for the best. “If the rules are made clear now and kept, people can plan their conduct accordingly in the future,” he said.

Other progressives disagree. “These are not the people they were trying to get at,” asserts Stephen Rickard, Washington director of the Open Society Institute.

The above is one of the most chilling platitudes routinely uttered in a democracy, disguised as a sincere and reasonably expressed sentiment. Rules and laws require consistent enforcement or they lose all meaning – we have seen enough over the past eight years of what happens from ignoring that simple principle. Exceptions are unavoidable but they must also be objective, consistent, and truly necessary.

Government reform ought not to ensure the people we like best are in office. Instead, it should protect us from those we consider dangerous from being able to wield power. As one disgruntled office seeker noted, “Heaven help us that there’s never another anti-worker, anti-poor-people Administration but my gut tells me there will be.”

We should all realize this and we should further realize that temporarily placing public advocacy lobbyists in policy positions would do nothing to temper this blow when it falls. Obama reversed Bush Administration policies just as Bush reversed Clinton Administration policies, Clinton reversed policies from the Reagan/Bush Sr. Administrations, and so on.

Progressives need to remember there are massive disagreements over what is “in the public’s best interest” between the two major Parties. Many conservatives could sincerely argue that a defense industry lobbyist, by seeking to improve the nation’s security, was far more helpful to the public interest than an environmental lobbyist bewailing global warming or a human rights lobbyist haranguing against torture of terrorist suspects.

If Obama maintains a simple and consistent policy (i.e. no lobbyists allowed), then when the next Republican President finally comes along, he or she could not reverse that policy without appearing to endorse the potential corruption it intended to fight. If Obama simply uses reform as an excuse to appoint only people who agree with him, the next Republican President cannot only reverse the policy but Obama has just handed them the very rationale as to why he or she may do so.

Stephen Rickard, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center, calls Tom Malinowski’s situation “an outrage” and insists, “Tom is one of the most effective and dedicated human rights activists in Washington and you could get twenty people to say that. It’s extremely unfortunate that Tom and people like Tom can’t be brought in to use their talents.”

It is a shame but Rickard might want to remember a mea culpa Obama had to issue over his attempts to bring another Tom into government. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake,” Obama said at the time. “Ultimately, it's important for this Administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules – you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks.”

The Tom in question was Tom Daschle and the problem was back taxes as opposed to lobbying but the principle remains the same. Everyone viewed Daschle as probably best positioned to act as point man on healthcare reform but others were available who could do the job. There is a distinct difference between this situation and the less admirable but necessary case of William Lynn, a uniquely positioned Democrat with defense chops and sympathy toward Obama’s views.

Nonprofit groups and ideological organizations comprise only five and a half percent of the $3.24 billion spent each year for Washington lobbying. Nonetheless, the $180 million this represents is far from chump change. Just because their motives are usually admirable does not guarantee their methods are always pure.

It is understandable why many public interest lobbyists would like a government job. Unlike their big money corporate counterparts, this would represent a raise for them. However, there is also no guarantee that effective partisans continue as effective policymakers or that successful advocates become successful administrators.

Progressives' frustration is understandable but their sense of betrayal is misplaced. The Obama Administration is right adhering to the strict anti-lobbying policy that public advocacy groups helped it to mold. Democrats are the Party that invented the spoils system; it is time to move beyond it in hopes of minimizing the impact of future spoilers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thinking and Acting Beyond Local

The Way to Expand School Choice Is to Expand Our Neighborhoods.

Last Friday, I posted about a federally funded voucher trial that just ended in the Washington D.C. public school system. Proponents of vouchers trumpet them as providing parental choice and promise they will force schools to improve or perish by applying free market forces. Opponents of vouchers condemn them as anti-democratic and direly predict they will not improve schools, making them worse instead.

The D.C. trial results proved paradoxical. There was little to no difference between voucher students and their public school counterparts yet voucher parents liked the program and insisted their children received a better education under it, in terms of cleaner/safer schools and a better sense of self-discipline and self-worth.

Even if we regarded this as sufficient to justify the continuation of the experiment, the D.C. voucher plan is not scalable much beyond the trial size of 1,900 students in a district containing 70,000 students. The alternatives would be to build dozens of unproven new private schools or concede a certain elitist aspect to vouchers that critics contend, similar to varsity sports.

The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research institution specializing in education, published a paper in 2003 at the start of the D.C. experiment, entitled Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers. While recognizing the inherent dangers of vouchers, the group also acknowledged the basic unfairness of trapping kids in bad schools. The second part of their report provides a reasonable and practicable means out of the apparent voucher/choice conundrum. They presented their findings at a National Press Club luncheon in 2003, from which most of the quoted material to follow is drawn.

They contend that while two basic virtues serve as the foundation for public education in this country, society tends to only acknowledge and celebrate one of them.

The virtue we recognize is excellence, particularly in term of education’s ability to allow us to realize the American Dream and make better lives for ourselves. We hold up Abraham Lincoln doing sums in charcoal on the back of a shovel as a boy and then going on to become a self-educated lawyer. We celebrate those who took advantage of their (limited) educational opportunities so much that we tend to regard those opportunities as ubiquitous and egalitarian.

The fact that some achieve excellence does not prove everybody has opportunity and a few succeed because they try harder. In fact, providing education as a right for all is something favored since the Founding Fathers as a way to promote democracy and avoid the rigid class structure of the European societies from which they came and ultimately rejected. Equal opportunity is the second, often unsung virtue of public education.

Excellence is an individual property and an individual choice. Providing equity in opportunity for education (or anything else) is a societal property and a societal choice. No Child Left Behind often earns criticism for its extensive use of testing and measurement but measurement itself is not this law’s basic weakness. The problem is that it only measures excellence achieved without regard to opportunity provided.

It assumes that by achieving parity in excellent performance, parity in opportunity follows. But this is exactly backwards.

Here is where basic selfishness comes into play. When parents complain of substandard schools, they too often mean the neighborhood schools their children attend are unsatisfactory. If they are happy with their children’s neighborhood schools, they do not care about other problems in their district, county, state, or the U.S. and categorize parents complaining in such places as troublemakers and radicals out to raise everybody’s taxes.

Richard Rothstein is the former education columnist for the New York Times and currently a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute. He carefully analyzed studies done within various school districts and found that type of school (i.e. public versus private) is seldom a predictor of school achievement. Instead, Rothstein found the key differentiator is the social class of the neighborhood in which any type of school is located.

In other words, if a neighborhood contains good private schools, it tends to have good public schools as well or at least better performing ones than public schools in “bad” neighborhoods. Conversely, if a neighborhood contains bad public schools, it tends to have bad private schools as well or at least worse performing ones than private schools in “good” neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, higher income neighborhoods tend to possess high-performing schools while lower income neighborhoods tend to possess low-performing schools.

Rothstein found that neighborhoods help or hurt their constituent schools in two basic ways – parental involvement and supplemental summer learning experiences.

Teachers in both public and private schools located in lower income “bad” neighborhoods expressed frustration they could not get parents involved with academic programs, either at school or via help with homework. In higher income “good” neighborhoods, teachers in both public and private schools reported a surplus of parental volunteers, sometimes even to the point of becoming disruptive.

Likewise, learning and other enrichment experiences continue year round for both public and private schoolchildren in higher income “good” neighborhoods while both public and private schoolchildren in lower income “bad’ neighborhoods routinely spend three months each year with virtually no classroom supplemental learning experiences. Rothstein believes summer learning may constitute as much as half of the so-called learning gap between students in “good” versus “bad” neighborhoods by the time they graduate high school (assuming students in the latter actually make it this far).

This phenomenon goes a long way to explaining the relatively small academic improvement demonstrated during the D.C. trial, as most voucher families opted for private, usually parochial, schools located in the same neighborhoods as the public schools their children would otherwise attend.

Dr. Charles Willie, a sociologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University is the co-author of Student Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement. He has consulted with numerous school systems on the subject of school choice and developed a model, or at least a general approach, to achieving it without vouchers. He has tried implementing such a model, with various degrees of cooperation/success, at school systems in Boston, Florida, Seattle, San Jose, and Illinois.

The central tenet of Willie’s approach is to force parents to think about their children’s education on a larger scale than their immediate neighborhood schools. His greatest success to date is the Lee County Florida public schools. This is a very large district, serving about 80,000 students and consisting of thirteen high schools, seventeen middle schools, forty-three elementary schools, nineteen charter schools, and twenty various other specialty schools.

Willie divided Lee County into several large zones. He invited parents with entry-level children to visit all of the schools at that level within their zone. Parents then picked which schools within a zone they most wanted their children to attend by ranking their top five choices. Willie attempted to meet these choices while simultaneously seeking to maximize diversity within each school along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines.

Unsurprisingly, the schools with the best reputations filled up the fastest. Since they were popular with parents from all demographic backgrounds, they also tended to be the most diverse. However, diversity did not impede choice. Eighty-five percent of parents got their first or second selection. When allowed to re-apply for their first choice the next year, less than five percent opted to do so, having found their second or third choice to be “good enough.”

As the new program got underway, Willie and school administrators began using a combination of goal setting and incentives to make less popular schools follow the policies and practices of their more popular peers. Academic performance scores improved under the new approach but so did those “tangible intangibles” so highly valued by D.C. voucher families.

Parents in Lee County had long been able to “grade” the schools their children attended. When the experiment began, fifteen percent of schools received a grade of “A,” fifteen percent received a failing grade of “D,” and the rest were somewhere in-between. A mere two years later, the number of “A” schools had doubled to thirty percent and not a single school received a “D.”

The fact that Lee County schools are still using his system today testifies to the success of Willie’s approach. Moreover, what about the parent volunteerism missing so often in “bad” neighborhood schools? The Lee County Public schools website reports that last year sixteen thousand parents logged over 425,000 hours in support of students.

The Lee County model, while promising, is far from a panacea. One reason Willie’s model worked there is because this district was already geographically expansive, with a large and highly diverse student population. Smaller, more geographically bound, and more segregated districts might need to dissolve their boundaries and combine with neighboring schools to achieve the same effects. This is sure to be exceedingly controversial as well as logistically difficult.

However, it seems clear the general principle necessary for excellent neighborhood schools everywhere is to get our heads out of the confines of our own neighborhoods and start regarding education as the global societal responsibility it truly represents. What is more, we must understand we cannot force global excellence. Our responsibility lies in first providing global opportunity and then inspiring, recognizing, and rewarding as many as possible to use that opportunity to achieve excellence.

“Think globally, act locally,” runs the old saw. Where public education is concerned, we have to move beyond local in both thinking and action.

Friday, April 17, 2009

First String First

Vouchers Are Actually the Antithesis of School Choice

On Wednesday, I posted in rebuttal to Christina Hoff Sommers’s fears that Title IX would wreak havoc with high school and college math/science programs in the same way she felt it had messed up athletics at these institutions. On the very same day, another op/ed piece appeared in the Washington Post, penned by former Democratic Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and former Democratic Washington D.C. Council Member Kevin Chavous.

While Sommers argued against implementing federal programs to promote gender parity in the sciences, Williams and Chavous made a case not to end a federally funded school voucher program in the D.C. public school system.

Officially known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, this initiative is an experiment providing payments for low-income children to attend private schools. Begun in 2003 as a brainchild of the former Bush Administration, in hopes of demonstrating the viability of vouchers, the experiment ended in 2008. Some were vocal in demanding for its renewal but the incoming Obama Administration, no fan of vouchers, declined to do so. Hence, Williams and Chavous public plea.

About 1,700 to 1,900 students participated each year during the program’s five year run. During that time, mandated follow-up testing measured whether children receiving vouchers performed better academically than their public school counterparts.

D.C. had voted against vouchers on several occasions prior to 2003 and opinion polls at the time showed a majority of parents still opposed them. The Bush Administration sweetened the deal by making vouchers one prong in a three-part $50 million federal funding package that also benefited D.C. public schools and D.C. public charter schools. In its earliest days, the program had more scholarships than it had applicants. Its popularity grew and most families receiving vouchers in 2008 did not want them to end.

Testing performed as part of the program was not encouraging. Voucher children at private schools performed only modestly better in reading and showed no significant differences whatsoever in math as compared to public school children. Even Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, conceded the results were “not the slam-dunk that some voucher supporters might have hoped for.”

Voucher programs operating in Cleveland and Milwaukee formed the basis of the D.C. trial and it suffered from some of the same operational problems and frauds as they do.

The program gave vouchers to students already attending private schools. Some schools accepted vouchers that normally charge no tuition for non-voucher students. Students from the most struggling D.C. schools consistently ended up underrepresented within the program when they were supposed to have highest priority.

A random sample of eighteen participating private schools found three lacking a building occupancy permit, six with building occupancy permits but without permission to operate as private schools or childcare centers, and seven with permission to operate only as childcare centers.

A random sample of fifty participating students revealed sixty percent of families spent voucher funds on before- and/or after-school care but the GAO usually found no evidence of any academic support activities during them, as required by the program. The GAO identified voucher payment problems of one type or another with nearly fifty percent of students in the sample.

However, any of these criticisms are potentially fixable. The biggest problem with vouchers in most school districts and certainly within D.C. public schools is their limited impact on the district as a whole. The D.C. program assisted 1,900 kids in a district with 70,000 students – less than three percent.

Even if the metrics were so wildly positive as to justify the program’s continuation and expansion, such an expansion would not be possible because vouchers simply are not scalable. There are not enough private schools in the D.C. area to handle many more students than those already attending. One of the experiment’s shortfalls was that few students could continue in it beyond the eight grade, due to a very limited number of available seats at private high schools.

What is more, parents found vouchers meant as much choice for private schools as it did for them. Just as in Cleveland and Milwaukee, D.C. private schools returned some voucher students they initially accepted, labeling them as “non-teachable,” a luxury their public compatriots do not have.

Despite all this, there is no denying that D.C. parents of voucher students are largely enthusiastic about the program. Although attending different schools has not improved their children’s test scores, these parents see other benefits. Their kids are in a safer and generally cleaner environment. They are more articulate, well mannered, disciplined, and self-assured. We often call such qualities “intangibles” but they are very noticeable to these D.C. parents.

Williams and Chavous have still another reason for promoting vouchers. They say society must not put off doing anything now for doing something later, even if the latter is better.

“Ensuring that every American child receives equal access to high-quality education represents our last civil rights struggle,” they write. “By any objective measure, the educational offerings we provide for our children, particularly children of color, do them a disservice.”

After chronicling an impressive list of horrible conditions and performance by the D.C. public schools, they assert, “We must find ways to educate every child now, by any means necessary,” and use this to justify the voucher program.

We should admire their passion but their logic is the equivalent of forsaking Title IX as a tool for parity in high school and college athletics and promoting revenue-generating sports like football and basketball in its place.

The demand by young men desiring to play these sports consistently far outstrips the number of available scholarships and varsity slots. As a result, a select few, through a combination of talent, hard work, and luck will play varsity, a few more will ride the bench in the relative obscurity of the reserves, and the vast majority will find themselves consigned to watch from the stands.

Instead of athletics serving as one component to a well-rounded education for as many as possible, it will be eliminated from the educational experience of most students and become the overriding factor in a few. This works well if you are one of a handful of schools with a shot at a state or national championship in a given year but actually serves to minimize opportunity and participation for most student bodies.

The situation will never change, however, so long as school administrators (i.e. the chief money raisers) seek to please alumni (i.e. the chief money suppliers). Unfortunately, far too many alumni feel that if they must support their alma maters financially, through either taxes or donations, then they want to be entertained and feel school pride in the most vicarious ways possible. Even if it is unintentional, selfishness rules.

The frustration and disappointment of those who were not good enough for those few varsity slots is readily understandable to most of us. However, even for the select varsity, the situation is not always an exultant one. They are under tremendous pressure to perform and most of them find their school athletic experience does not translate into their dreams of multi-million dollar NFL and NBA contracts. They often find themselves left with little to fall back on, their academics regarded with a wink and a shrug by all.

To the extent that voucher programs have been successful, it is because they have been small enough not to swamp participating private schools. Their proponents tell us they bring the competition of free markets into education such a way that will ensure choice and opportunity for all. In reality, vouchers are the very antithesis of school choice.

Instead, they apply to the individual inherent selfishness that is also a factor in free markets. Too many of us seek the most out of public education for our own children while simultaneously striving to pay as little as possible to fund the education of other children. However, children – any children – always pull at our heartstrings when held up for display and voucher activists know this.

Williams and Chavous know it too. Even the Washington Post buys into their pitch of “anything if it is to help kids.” In a January editorial, they opined, “Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, say they [will] eschew ideology in favor of what serves the interests of children. Here's a chance to help 1,716 of them.”

Sounds good . . . until we ask what about the other 68,284 or so children in the D.C. public schools alone. Holding up the kids lucky enough to receive vouchers is like telling the student body to show school spirit and put the First String first. That group might well serve as inspiring role models for others but this seems almost cruel when the very structure of the environment will never even allow those inspired to get onto the field.

Is there any way out of this conundrum? Maybe.

More about that on Monday . . .

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dribbling and Derivatives

Can Girls Play Sports and Do Math? Is Title IX a Blessing or Curse for Lady Liberty’s Daughters?

What does dribbling a basketball have to do with calculating the first derivative of a mathematical function? Neither of them are things that girls naturally do well, according to some. What is more, author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, fears Title IX is about to ruin U.S. math excellence in the same way she believes it ruined high school and college athletics.

Sommers became alarmed by a letter President Obama wrote to women’s advocacy groups last October while still campaigning for office. In it, Obama declared Title IX had made “an enormous impact on women's opportunities and participation in sports.” If pursued with “necessary attention and enforcement,” Obama reasoned it could also make “similar, striking advances” for women in science and engineering.

Sommers’s main beef with Title IX is a common one for the law’s critics. Namely, that it results in reverse discrimination against male athletics. She cites a striking example of this at Howard University in Washington DC.

Howard cut its men’s wrestling and baseball programs to fund more women’s sports programs after coming under considerable pressure from the Women's Sports Foundation. This group was incensed because women constituted sixty-seven percent of Howard’s enrollment but made up only forty-three percent of its athletic programs.

The new offerings did little to boost female participation. Sommers seems inclined to agree with former Howard men’s wresting coach Wade Hughes, who huffed, “The impact of Title IX's proportionality standard has been disastrous because . . . far more males than females are seeking to take part in athletics.” Such sweeping condemnation necessitates a quick historical review.

Title IX, officially known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, in honor of the Hawaii Congresswoman who was its principal author, became law in 1972. It states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Although the original wording of the law never even mentioned athletics, it soon became the basis for numerous lawsuits charging sexual discrimination in high school and college sports. In 1979, the forerunner of the Department of Health and Human Services developed a three-prong test to determine compliance by any given school. The first test is the proportionality standard applied at Howard. However, co-equal tests include continually expanded opportunities for women as well as “Full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of [women].”

Studies involving NCAA data show the passage of Title IX has increased high school female athletic participation by 900% and collegiate female athletic participation by anywhere from 450% to 950%.

Although more men continue to play sports than women do, a 2001 GAO analysis determined the ratio of male to female athletes at the collegiate level is 2.3:1.6, a far smaller gap than the law’s critics like to imply. The generally high regard for Title IX is reflected by no fewer than sixteen states having passed legislation enforcing similar protections for schools not receiving any federal funds.

Sommers and others are correct about a detrimental tendency toward male athletics but this is neither across the board nor due to Title IX alone. Rather it is the devastation of a perfect storm created when the irresistible force of civil rights advocacy meets the immovable object of big money sports.

Unwilling to make even modest cuts in revenue-generating programs, such as football and basketball, many schools choose instead to make draconian cuts in less popular men’s sports, such as wrestling, track and field, swimming, and tennis, to pay for new women’s programs. As a result, the average number of available sports programs has increased for women but fallen for men since Title IX’s advent. This is a choice by school administrators and not necessarily one in the best interest of either male or female students.

Nevertheless, Sommers fears that applying Title IX to achieve an unnatural forced gender parity in the fields of math and science will result in driving out all of the “best” (i.e. “male”) minds in these areas. Sommers views this as disastrous, given that “American scientific excellence” is “vital to the economy and national defense.” What is more, she insists that biology and considered preference, rather than sexist bias, explain why men and women gravitate to different academic fields.

It would all be sadly laughable . . . except a growing number of studies are confirming her hypotheses.

A new report, entitled A Measure of Equity – Women's Progress in Higher Education, issued this January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, confirms the problem is real. It found that while female high school graduates earning college degrees increased across all racial and ethnic groups from 1985 to 2005, the National Science Foundation reported women earning degrees in math and hard sciences declined during the same period. An even more pronounced trend emerged for women pursuing post-baccalaureate education in these fields.

A study by Joshua Rosenbloom, an economist at the University of Kansas, published in the November 2007 issues of the Journal of Economic Psychology, as well as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, conducted by Vanderbilt researchers Camilla Persson Benbow and David Lubinski, searched for differences between math/science and other fields with greater sexual parity. Both studies looked at large samples over long periods.

Neither found significant differentiators in terms of family history, work/time pressures, education, or basic cognitive ability. The only significant difference established was that people choosing careers in math/science strongly preferred working with inorganic materials and manipulating machines – a preference also strongly correlated with men. In contrast, people working in gender-balanced fields preferred working with organic materials and dealing with other people – a preference strongly correlated with women.

The Vanderbilt study also found that women with gifted math abilities tended to have stronger verbal skills than their male counterparts did. As a result, their career choices expanded to include medicine and biological sciences, social sciences, humanities, law, and teaching.

Finally, author and psychologist Susan Pinker gathered data from the journal Science and a variety of sources that demonstrate, contrary to intuition, the most pronounced gender gaps in math and hard sciences exist in countries with the most freedoms and legal protections for women. In countries with fewer opportunities, like the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, the number of women in science fields was as high as thirty to thirty-five percent, versus only five percent in democratic, industrialized nations such as Canada, Japan, and Germany.

Before conceding too much of the varsity playing field to Sommers and her team, it must be noted that the line between “social bias” and “personal preference” can be a nebulous one. The authors of all the above studies are quick to note that while a preference among men for math and science exists that is lacking in women, they have no clear notion as to how human beings form such preferences.

There is no compelling evidence that sexist bias and cultural pressures play any more or any less a role than basic biology. Furthermore, there is wide variation exhibited among individuals within both sexes and all academic disciplines.

Sommers is probably right and Obama probably wrong in disparaging Title IX as an ideal tool to help solve our nation’s current math/science gap. Forcing increased opportunities for female participation will do little when the current low participation seems as much a product of female preference as it does male sexism.

Indeed, yet another study conducted by Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre Moreau from London Metropolitan University and Debbie Epstein from Cardiff University, sponsored by British Economic and Social Research Council, sought to discover why such a low proportion of math-precocious boys enter math/science fields. The results suggested the number one cause was a poor image of mathematicians and scientists. Focus groups characterized such professionals as work-obsessed and slovenly, lacking in basic social skills let alone sex appeal.

The researchers concluded legislation and enforcement mechanisms were poor solutions. Instead, “We need to use the mechanisms of mass culture to form a positive image of a mathematician.” In short, the answer is better communication and education – something schools seem well positioned to provide.

There is one important caveat, however. Just as the boundary between bias and preference is fuzzy, so is the one between opportunity and interest. Perhaps the forced creation of more female athletic programs at high schools colleges was the very thing that began changing attitudes of women about the acceptability of girls playing and excelling at sports.

Even if the above is true, such dangerous progressivism is too much for Sommers to stomach. She confesses her trepidation over the aggressiveness of advocacy groups like the American Association of University Women, who warn American educators, “We are breaking through barriers. We mean it; we've done it before; and we are ‘coming after them’ again . . . and again and again, if we have to! All of us, all the time.”

She would then likely be scared out of her wits by two authors whose op/ed piece appears on the same page of the Washington Post as her own. Quoting Malcom X, they vow to reform Washington DC schools “By any means necessary,” in the name of providing greater opportunity and choice immediately.

But more about that on Friday . . .

Monday, April 13, 2009

The War on Piracy

Hopefully, It’s Very Different from the War on Terror.

Three shots and it was over. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates yesterday, thereby rescuing an American ship captain they had taken hostage. A fourth pirate, in need of medical attention, had previously surrendered to the Navy. The captain’s crew had foiled the pirates’ attempts to hijack their ship days earlier.

While most analysts viewed the incident as a national security victory for the Obama Administration, many saw the larger crisis as far from over. The lead editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal challenged, “Now the Obama Administration has an obligation to punish and deter these lawless raiders so they'll never again risk taking a U.S.-flagged ship or an American crew . . . since the Navy can't stop every hijacking, some kind of military action against pirates on land may be needed.”

Certainly, the pirates were talking tough in the aftermath. “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill [the hostages],” said one. “Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying,” agreed another.

One need only remember back eight and a half years to another attack against U.S. civilians with a far more tragic outcome to find all of this ominously familiar. Even as the Obama Administration has banished the fading term “war on terror,” a war on piracy, ostensibly so antediluvian, appears about to dawn in the Twenty-First Century.

On the other hand, different people are in charge today and the way they handled this standoff suggests President Obama will be a bit more circumspect than former President Bush before plunging the nation into yet another warfront. True, Obama authorized the use of deadly force against the pirates but he previously called in FBI hostage negotiators, acknowledging the quasi-military, quasi-criminal threat pirates represent.

Much like buccaneers of old, modern-day pirates mount their attacks motivated by dreams of booty. Dollars also play a big role in exactly how the U.S. may defend itself from the threat they represent in the future.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unveiled a $534 billion budget proposal that represents a “fundamental overhaul” in defense acquisition as well as a shift from fighting conventional wars to “the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years to come,” in Gate’s own words.

This includes forsaking the high-tech F-22 stealth fighter jet in favor of the cheaper and more flexible F-35 model, ending the massive DG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer program for the more maneuverable Littoral Combat Ship capable of operating close to shore, scraping the Army’s Future Combat System’s armored vehicles, and cutting back on a highly controversial anti-missile “shield” defense.

Places where Gates wants to spend more consist of surveillance systems and other relatively low-tech weapons that are best suited for guerrilla or irregular war as well as recruitment and training of nearly three thousand additional Special Operations personnel focused on counter-terrorism.

“It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-ensure against a remote or diminishing risk – or in effect to run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant – is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in and improve capabilities in areas where we are under-invested and potentially vulnerable,” Gates said.

Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt, editors and scholars at the conservative American Enterprise Institute decried Gate’s focus on budget over security in last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing it was part of a larger Obama Administration stratagem to switch spending priorities from defense, which has doubled in size since 2001, to domestic social programs. Such a shift, the pair insists, portend “a future U.S. military that is smaller and packs less wallop.”

However, it is important to remember that guns versus butter has always been an unfortunate but necessary tradeoff for every nation. What is more, those in Congress hostile to Gate’s cuts are as likely to point to the economic impacts on their districts as they are to national defense for their objections.

Even since wartime spending during World War II helped lift the country out of the waning years of the Great Depression into productive vitality, the U.S. has demonstrated an over-reliance on military spending to stimulate our economy. The high-tech and progressive nature of weaponry has resulted in a behemoth industrial-military complex, upon which entire communities and even entire states come to rely for jobs and infusions of capital.

What is more, others agree with Gates that the constant pursuit of ever more powerful futuristic weapons is inconsistent with contemporary U.S. challenges. In the April issue of World Policy Journal, Navy Commander James Kraska, a member of the faculty of the International Law Department at the Naval War College, and Navy Captain Brian Wilson, a senior Navy lawyer in Washington D.C., argue that foes likes pirates are unimpressed by colossal shows of power.

The recent standoff between the U.S. Navy and Somali pirates is a classic example. The guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge dwarfed the pirates in terms of size and firepower but this did not force them to release their hostage or thwart their attempts to seize control of an American ship in the first place.

Instead, the happy outcome resulted mainly due to speedy response, individual expert marksmanship, and the willingness of this crew to fight back rather than submit to being taken hostage, reminiscent of the passengers of the fourth airliner downed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11. Kraska and Wilson suggest the U.S. pool resources with other nations to provide African countries with smaller, leaner boats and train people there to patrol their coasts effectively.

For their part, Donnelly and Schmitt are correct to point out that traditionally “[war] often rewards those who arrive on the battlefield ‘the fustest with the mostest,’ as Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest once put it.” However, a certain converge is occurring between the “shock and awe” power needed for conventional warfare with the irregular tactics associated with pirates and terrorism.

Fred Iklé, an author and scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out in the Washington Post this morning that terrorists could use pirate techniques to their own nefarious ends. Possibilities range from exploding a large bomb in a crowded port or shipping lane to kidnapping and killing passengers on a luxury liner to simply raising money to finance their operations.

Then there are the unconventional military branches of hostile nations, such as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. This force hides speedboats loaded with explosives in the many coves of Iran’s coastline that could ram ships on suicide missions, similar to both pirate and terrorist techniques.

Yet it may be Robert Kaplan, writing in Saturday’s New York Times, who notes the most salient link between pirates, terrorists, and rogue regimes. “Somali pirates are usually unemployed young men who have grown up in an atmosphere of anarchic violence and have been dispatched by a local warlord . . . These pirates are fearless because they have grown up in a culture where nobody expects to live long.”

Anywhere that extreme poverty meets virtually nonexistent hope for advancement is a breeding ground for converts to the aims of violent extremists. Moreover, Somali pirates driven by criminal gain, as opposed to ideological or religious radicalism, are far closer to threats the U.S. faces from groups like Columbian drug cartels or the tragic drug wars in Mexico.

Obama recently used the failed launch of a North Korean missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads as an opportunity to promote nuclear disarmament rather than a space-based ballistic missile race. In the same way, this foiled hijack and kidnapping provides an opportunity to act against the forces driving desperate young men from Third World nations into crime and violence versus declaring a new war against another ill-defined and, often enough, faceless enemy.

Very different people are in charge today. Hopefully, the war on piracy will be very different from the war on terror. The last thing we need is over-reaction and a repeat of the past eight and a half weary years.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Weddings and a Death

Conservatives Are Wrong that Gay Marriage Is Killing Religion and Religious Values.

Last week, the Iowa State Supreme Court struck down a state law banning gay marriage. This week, Vermont’s legislature voted to legalize gay marriage, moving beyond the state’s previous “separate but equal” civil unions and overriding its Republican governor’s promised veto.

Each state witnessed moving testimony from gay advocates.

Democratic State Representative Jason Lorber began crying during debate in the Vermont statehouse when he recounted his feeling of estrangement and degradation upon seeing the newspaper announcement of his and his partner’s civil union carried in a separate category from marriage announcements. “Why do we have to say, You Are Different?” he asked his fellow lawmakers. “Why can't we just say, Congratulations!”

Michael Judge, a writer and editor from Iowa, received an excited phone call from his gay older brother, David, who had suffered a severe illness during which time hospital rules excluded his partner from the ICU as a non-spouse. “You know what this means, don't you?” David asked. “It means [gays] can visit those we love when they're dying in the hospital; it means we're finally treated like family.”

It seems hard understand how such basic affirmation of our common humanity could be anything other than a positive. Yet a spokesperson for the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center, when asked how that group was responding to the court ruling, replied, “I would say the mood is one of mourning right now in a lot of ways.”

Frustration or disappointment is understandable in any political defeat but “mourning” takes things to a whole other level. Apparently, this camp feels it is the one suffering a death in the family. The victim is their traditional values. For some, our nation’s very Way of Life is under attack and in threat of vanishing altogether.

Those who feel this way may well closely identify with the cover story in the current issue of Newsweek, which proclaims, “The End of Christian America.”

The article draws on statistics from the recently published American Religious Identification Survey, which shows the percentage of self-identified Christians in the U.S. has fallen ten points in the past two decades. Meanwhile, the number of self-identified atheists and agnostics has grown fourfold. Non-believers are now bigger than some individual Christian sects but still only a relatively small fraction of the total population.

More troubling for religious conservatives is a separate Pew Forum poll, which found people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith doubling in recent years. Unlike atheists, this group believes in God and some of its members consider themselves extremely spiritual. Despite this, they are rejecting contemporary religion in ever-increasing numbers.

Some religious conservatives seem to believe legalizing gay marriage and mainstreaming the homosexual lifestyle are exactly what is responsible for the death of Christianity and traditional morals. “It's a perversion and it opens the door to more perversions. What's next?” asked the Reverend Keith Ratliff Sr. of the Maple Street Baptist Church in Des Moines Iowa.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is absolutely correct when he echoes countless great thinkers throughout history in maintaining, “The moral teachings of Christianity have exerted an incalculable [positive] influence on Western civilization.”

As if on cue, along comes David Brooks in Tuesday’s New York Times to announce the death of philosophy or, at least, ethics. Brooks assures that “many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers” are eschewing morality as a set of abstract absolutes arrived upon through deliberate reasoning in favor of a more aesthetic or emotionally based model. In such a model, our brains constantly sift through the bombardment of everyday reality “to find what is of value in our environment” and we make value judgments quickly and intuitively.

This view is probably more accurate than many of us would care to admit but arguably less than ideal. Morality may be relative, as individuals apply their separate, unique sets of experiences to new situations. However, morality is not subjective. We may come to divergent but sincere conclusions over supporting, tolerating, or banning gay marriage. In spite of this, gay marriage is not actually moral for some and immoral for others, any more than murder for profit is moral for some and immoral for others.

Morality by gut feel may be what we often practice but we avoid chaos but using generally agreed-upon principles, backed up by careful thought and years of scrutiny and peer review, to help guide us. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia supports this approach to moral choice. He argues that although moral standards have primacy in our day-to-day assessments, they are not dictators.

For most of history, the compilation of moral codes has been the province of religion, among other institutions. While the degree to which we hold moral standards as suggested guidelines versus immutable laws varies by individual, there are critical times in everyone’s lives when we face compelling reasons to override them – most often due to our experiences with other people.

As more homosexuals declare themselves and live openly as gay couples, it becomes more difficult for the rest of us to apply old prejudices and condemnations that seek to demonize them. People often turn to religion to guide them through challenging times but religion has not been particularly responsive on this issue or many other contemporary quandaries. In fact, many view them as the source of the confusion.

Perhaps the most ominous finding by Newsweek polling may be that only forty-eight percent of Americans now think religion “can answer all or most of today's problems.” As little as five years ago, this figure never dipped below sixty percent.

Religion may seek to uncover unchanging Truth but the sheer number of different ones that have popped up over time testifies to the difficulty of this endeavor. Currently, there are more than two hundred religious traditions in the United States.

New religions are constantly being established even as old ones pass away. Some gain popularity for a time only to see it slowly wane. Adherents leave religions while non-believers convert to them. The same person may follow multiple faiths during their lifetime. Whether religion drives society or society drives religion would be a very long and complicated discussion. However, it is clear any religion that ceases to be relevant within the society it operates will eventually wither and die.

Consider Democratic State Representative Albert "Sonny" Audette, who expressed personal sadness during debates in the Vermont legislature at voting against gay marriage. “I am a devout Catholic,” Audette said. “My religion at this point would not want me to vote for this. I wish that I could and I hope for the best and I congratulate the people who are trying to get this through.”

The current disconnect between religion and gay marriage need not be fatal. Religion has repeatedly confronted crisis points in our nation’s relatively short history. As recently as the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s there was talk of the death of God, Christianity, and/or religion. Instead of fading out, religion often emerged all the stronger from these critical junctures, usually as the result of reformation.

Tom Altizer, a liberal Professor of Religion at Emory University, argues such crises are crucial to religious survival because they represent opportunities in which “religions are unshackled from their previous historical grounds.” Consistency is important but doctrine must also retain malleability, lest it no longer seem alive and meaningful.

Unfortunately, too many of the religious of this country have used the challenges of the past twenty years not for reconciliation with a more diverse society but resistance against it. This has included retraction into reactionary fundamentalism as well as plans to join with the Republican Party to bring about more social conservatism and increased religiosity in public life, usually under the soubriquet of a return to America’s greatness.

Rather then ennobling politics, the latter has only pulled down religion toward politics’ tendency to corrupt with power. Even Mohler, the Baptist leader, admits the religious right “invested far too much hope in a political solution to what are transpolitical issues and problems.”

By holding up religion as a shield to apologize for their own prejudices and fears or using outmoded doctrines as a weapon to oppose basic fairness, conservatives have generally failed in their objectives and tarnished religion far more than the targets of their attacks.

Republican State Representative Duncan Kilmartin explained people who oppose same-sex marriage fear they will have their beliefs impinged upon by the law. “You do not have the right to demand that we approve same-sex marriage, even if you pass a law saying it's the law of Vermont,” he declared.

However, gay marriage laws do not mandate universal approval, only acceptance or toleration. Courts ruling in favor of gay marriage have not sought to advance a minority agenda so much as protect a minority from the agendas, intentional and otherwise, of the majority.

In its historic decision, the Iowa State Supreme Court wrote, “We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The Legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification.”

Furthermore, the court noted the things denied to gays are more basic and go deeper than certain legal rights, insurance benefits, or tax advantages. “Perhaps the ultimate disadvantage expressed in the testimony of the plaintiffs is the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage.”

In Vermont, Republican State Representative Rick Hube explained that he was voting for gay marriage precisely due to his conservative, libertarian values. “This to me is not about religion, civil rights or the institution of marriage. This to me is about being true to a set of principles. People should have the opportunity to make choices and have control over their own lives.”

David Brooks notes, “[Americans] don’t just care about our individual rights or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.”

This sense of cooperation and community is the heritage of religion every bit as much as secular democracy. How have the two become so discordant? The religious fundamentalists are wrong to place the blame on democracy.

Gay marriage does not signal the decline of Christianity, traditional values, the American Way of Life, or anything else. Instead, the intolerance shown by its opponents is slowly poisoning the very things they most wish to save. More and more Americans find such fear and hate inconsistent with their own experiences and relationships with homosexual family members, friends, and acquaintances.

If religious conservatives do not want to attend a death and funeral for their own values, they need to steel themselves to begin attending gay weddings.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Act, Not Overreact

Obama’s Listening. Now the World Must Heed His Call.

In the middle of his first major international tour, President Obama continues stressing that he has come “to listen and not to lecture.” Yesterday morning, he listened to something beside friendly but uneasy greetings from real and potential enemies, grumbling from petulant European leaders, and cheering from crowds. The roar of rocket engines temporarily drowned out all, as North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan.

Pyongyang had announced the missile’s launch and flight path in advance, so it was no great surprise. However, the U.S. had warned North Korea that we would view such an act as provocative and its actual occurrence resulted in the U.S. and Japan calling for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

The UN is unlikely to produce any new resolutions, let alone any new/additional sanctions, until later this week at the earliest. Security Council members all desire a united response. Moreover, Russia and China are particularly wary of further penalizing North Korea.

As the Obama Administration continues to shape policy, the President clearly desires any response to include three broad initiatives.

First, it must be global. Hence, the immediate turn to the United Nations. Second, it must be diplomatic. The U.S. point person to date has not been the Secretary of Defense or Homeland Security nor the National Security Advisor but rather Secretary of State Clinton. Third, instead of prompting anti-missile systems and other weapons buildup, call for nuclear disarmament. “This provocation underscores the need for action . . . in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons,” Obama said.

Speaking yesterday in the Czech Republic, Obama outlined broad new programs, including immediate U.S. ratification of a ban on nuclear testing, a summit in Washington to stop the spread of nuclear material within four years, and a nuclear fuel bank to allow peaceful development of nuclear power.

Reaction from conservative circles was swift and denunciatory. Former UN Ambassador during the Bush Administration, John Bolton, now a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, led the charge in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bolton points out the ineffectiveness of past UN resolutions and criticizes the one drafted by the U.S. and Japan for this incident as “weak.”

In the past, the U.S. has turned to the UN with ultimatums (i.e. “enact the sanctions we want or we will do far worse”). This forced the UN into irrelevancy and left any nation that disagreed nothing short of a moral obligation to enforce the resulting sanctions either feebly or not at all. This time, Obama is looking to the rest of the Security Council and asking, “So what are we going to do?” This, plus an emphasis on consensus, may give us less of what we want but will also give other nations less wiggle-room to avoid enforcement.

Bolton goes on to bewail the likelihood that Obama will return the U.S. to six-party talks. “Those talks are exactly where North Korea wants to be,” he warns.

In fact, what North Korea wants most are direct negotiations with the U.S. Six-party talks force North Korea to deal with both Japan and South Korea, its two most-despised neighbors, and places it rawest threats before its allies, Russia and China. The undercutting of diplomatic discipline that Bolton and others rue this morning came when former President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, in a moment of panic, dealt directly with Pyongyang, granting aid in exchange for an unmet promise of no further testing.

Bolton sees lack of U.S. sternness with North Korea serving to embolden Iran, especially since the latter is interested in acquiring technology from North Korea for its own fledgling nuclear program. Gordon Chang shares the same concern in this morning’s Asian Wall Street Journal.

This ignores how utterly disastrous North Korea’s missile program has been. Yesterday’s launch was a bust. Instead of delivering its third stage and payload into space, a second stage failure caused them to crash in the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, this represents the latest in a string of failures for the Taepodong-2 missile.

“It’s a setback,” deemed Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks satellite and rocket launchings.

“It’s got to be embarrassing,” agreed Geoffrey Forden, a missile expert at M.I.T.

Bolton and others insist even a launch capability suggests danger but analysts disagree.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, says North Korea does not test enough. After watching the Taepodong-2 since 1998, he now says, “We have very little confidence in the reliability of the system.”

Dr. David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, feels that a variety of problems in North Korea’s missiles and warheads means they do not “represent a true intercontinental nuclear delivery capability.”

Bolton concludes with a combination of anger and fear that the world will soon learn to bully the U.S. when lead by a President “so ready to bend his knee.”

Andrei Lankov, an Associate Professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had three main goals with this launch, none of them military. He outlines them in an op/ed piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

First, Kim wants to draw Obama’s attention away from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan by reminding him that North Korea is a serious threat with whom the U.S. must deal. The perception of such a threat is crucial for Kim to exert bargaining leverage when attempting to acquire food and fuel for his impoverished people.

Second, Kim has a commercial interest in making his missile program look successful. The sale of short- and medium-range missiles, mostly to the Middle East, as previously mentioned, is an important source of revenue for his regime.

Third, Kim needs to boost his own prestige, credibility, and support inside North Korea. With his health reported as poor, few allies, and his subjects perpetually on the edge of starvation, Kim is weaker than ever in many ways.

All this suggests that North Korea needs the U.S. more than we need fear them. Kim’s death may create a power vacuum but, in a worst-case scenario, we may reliably count upon China and others to prevent complete chaos, possibly under the auspices of the UN.

Bolton and others lament that a few days of outrage will quickly subside back to the status quo, in which Kim and North Korea continue to survive. Yet the status quo mean that Kim remains virtually powerless, able to rattle some impressively loud sabers without getting what he really wants most, so long as the U.S. and others remain disciplined and firm.

As a senior Senate official told the Washington Post, “The key here, in terms of response to the missile, is to keep our eye on the ultimate objective, which is a Korean Peninsula that is at peace and nuclear-free . . . We should not have an overreaction to this missile test, because it does us no good to have the denuclearization process set back just because of this launch attempt.”

Overreaction has been the standard reaction in Washington for so long that we no longer recognize disciplined diplomacy. This is less about how we manage North Korea and how we manage other powers, such as Russia and China, hostile nations, such as Iran and the Arab world, and our allies.

Unsurprisingly, Bolton and his ilk see the only way to do that is with a show of force against North Korea. It is still part of a totalitarian “axis of evil,” representing a clear and present danger to democracy everywhere. Their tendency to see every incident as a fight with a strong foe is exactly what led to the overreaction disasters of the recent past. Luckily, Obama has already moved beyond that paradigm.

Obama is listening but no one should confuse this with passivity. His quiet seriousness is calling on the rest of the world to act, not overreact.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Essentially the Same

By Losing a Court Case, the Obama Administration Wins a
Legal Precept. Does It Realize That?

The courts handed the Obama Administration a challenge and an opportunity yesterday, when U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled that three foreign detainees at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan could challenge their detentions. This represents the first extension of such rights to detainees held elsewhere than Guantanamo Bay.

Captured outside of Afghanistan and subsequently moved to Bagram, the detainees in question, two Yemenis and a Tunisian, have remained imprisoned for the past six years without trial.

The Obama Justice Department adhered to the principles established by the former Bush Administration when defending this case.

Bagram is different from Guantanamo, they argued, because it is in an overseas war zone and the prisoners held there part of a military action. Releasing potentially dangerous terrorist suspects into that war zone could threaten security. The same would be true for diverting U.S. personnel there expressly to consider their cases. The Justice Department also warned of a slippery slope in which all foreigners captured by our military in worldwide conflicts must be granted access to U.S. courts.

Judge Bates bought their logic up to a point. He refused to grant legal rights to a fourth petitioner precisely because he was an Afghan citizen captured within Afghanistan. For the other three, however, he insisted Bagram and Gitmo were “essentially the same.” He repeatedly cited last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detentions and applied a test created by the Justices in that case to Bagram.

Bates found Bagram detainees had been denied access to courts for “an unreasonable amount of time.”

In its original filings, the Bush Administration contended that the status of Bagram detainees underwent review every six months. However, Bates considered those reviews inadequate, noting detainees had no access to representation or evidence used against them. Detainees could not even speak on their own behalf, although they might submit written statements. Even so, Bates found they faced significant language and cultural barriers when attempting to conduct their own defenses.

“It is one thing to detain those captured on the surrounding battlefield at a place like Bagram, which respondents correctly maintain is in a theater of war,” Bates wrote in his fifty-three page ruling. “It is quite another thing to apprehend people in foreign countries – far from any Afghan battlefield – and then bring them to a theater of war, where the Constitution arguably may not reach. Such rendition resurrects the same specter of limitless Executive power the Supreme Court sought to guard against.”

Many Obama supporters doubtless are disappointed and angry that the President chose to side with the Bush Administration in limiting detainee rights. It was probably more practicality than ideological agreement driving his decision, however.

Following executive orders to close down secret CIA prisons immediately and Guantanamo within a year, the Obama Administration still needs some central facility to hold the most dangerous of its captured terrorist suspects. With about six hundred detainees already held there, Bagram probably seemed a prime choice for that facility.

Obama is particularly sensitive to Republican charges raised during the election campaign that his policies regarding detainees are politically motivated and counter to U.S. security considerations. Conservative reaction to Judge Bates’s decision demonstrates the withering attacks Obama may be hoping to avoid.

David Rivkin, an associate White House counsel during the Administration of George H.W. Bush, predicted the ruling’s overturn on appeal. He warned that it “gravely undermined [the nation’s] ability to detain enemy combatants for the duration of hostilities worldwide.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the decision “dangerous and naïve” and said it put troops at risk by allowing a judge to micromanage a war thousands of miles away. “Using this logic in World War II would not have allowed us to capture Nazi operatives anywhere but in Germany,” Graham said.

Republican Representative John McHugh of New York, the leading minority member on the House Armed Services Committee, said the decision “turns warfare into lawfare and could place lives at risk.”

His supporters often style Obama as a Constitutional scholar and authority. As a candidate and now President, he has been quick to defend and uphold the authority of courts and the Rule of Law when he agreed with their decisions. The rubber really meets the road now that one of their opinions has gone against him.

It may be that the Administration’s somewhat passive stance in this case may have been a kind of “no contest” plea on their part; a desire to feel out the Judicial Branch’s position on detainees before applying their own preferences to construct official policy on the matter. It is suggestive that the Justice Department’s only reaction to yesterday’s ruling was to deem it under review with no immediate plans for appeal.

We may only hope they realize this decision holds an unseen benefit for them. By holding that Guantanamo is not unique from a legal perspective, the courts do much to deflate Republican charges that the President is using it as a political football and populist scapegoat at the expense of U.S. security and valid legal precepts.

Instead, by universalizing the rights granted to Gitmo detainees across all U.S. detainees, the courts imply it is policies granting the Executive Branch rights to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial and unilaterally decide who among them represent a legitimate threat to the United States that represent clear and present danger to civil liberties and Constitutional balance of powers.

Those grumbling against liberal, activist judges should know Judge Bates was one of the first federal judges appointed to the bench by George W. Bush back in 2001. He is an Army veteran and former career Justice Department official. He has presided over several high-profile cases in his eight year career, sometimes siding with the government and sometimes ruling against it.

Furthermore, another decision issued from the same courthouse by a different judge may also be cheering to the Obama Administration. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon declined to discharge Hedi Hammamy of Tusisia, despite his incarceration for seven years at Guantanamo Bay, because the government provided overwhelming evidence that he supported terrorism and would represent a major security risk if released.

If such precedent now stands at Guantanamo, then there seems little reason to believe that Bagram could not serve as a high-security facility for America’s most dangerous detainees, as the Obama Administration apparently desires, even if those detainees are subject to basic habeas corpus.

Standing with the Bush Administration on Bagram may not have been the most brilliant move by Obama’s Justice Department. Let us hope they are smart enough to see the victory within the defeat this ruling provided them as a result.